Gregg Marshall used to look at the players on Wichita State's bench and — no offense to those players, all fine young men — get a sinking feeling.
As he likes to say, his walk to the end of the bench in his first couple of seasons with the Shockers consisted of one or two steps. WSU's bench, in those days, was like the DMV office — your number was slow to be called.
But the Shockers are loaded in 2010-11 with a bench as deep as the ocean and not an oil spill to be found. This season, when Marshall looks down his bench, he'll need a telescope. He said he went 13-deep during a scrimmage against the University of Denver over the weekend at Koch Arena and if it weren't for a couple of nagging injuries, he might go that far tonight when the Shockers play an exhibition game against the Newman Jets.
There's a key Shocker basketball player for every month on the calendar and it's because of that expected depth — and a lot of skill and size to boot — that Wichita State is a near-unanimous pick to win the Missouri Valley Conference title this season. And who knows what after that?
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Marshall is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of coach. When his team has flaws, he'll acknowledge them. But when it's good — as this team is — he doesn't deny.
It's no secret, after all. The Shockers are two deep at every position, especially if forwards Gabe Blair (back) and Jerome Hamilton (ankle) get healthy. If everybody is feeling good, WSU is covered like a newborn baby at all five spots:
5: Garrett Stutz, Ehimen Orukpe, J.T. Durley
4: Durley, Gabe Blair, Hamilton, Aaron Ellis
3: Graham Hatch, Durley, Ellis, David Kyles, Tyler Richardson, Ben Smith
2: Toure Murry, Hatch, Kyles, Richardson, Demetric Williams
1: Williams, Joe Ragland, Murry
Every coach loves to mix and match, and Marshall will feel like a master chef as he concocts different lineups for different occasions.
Depth isn't the only reason the Shockers go into this season with such high expectations. This isn't just a deep team, it's a talented one. And an experienced one.
Murry, Stutz and Kyles are about ready to explode to a new level. Durley, once the whipping boy because of immaturity and devotion issues, is now the senior member of this team and its emotional leader. What a difference five years makes.
Williams and Ragland have waged a battle for minutes at point guard. Both likely will get their share and after that it's a matter of who leads best.
Hatch works so hard in games that after Shocker fans are finished watching him, they feel the need to go home and soak their feet.
Blair is relentless. Ellis presents all kinds of match-up problems. And if former red-shirts Hamilton and Richardson can add anything at all, this team becomes ridiculously loaded.
And then there's Orukpe, the Nigerian whose route to Wichita would make Magellan dizzy. The buzz created by his recruiting ordeal has set the bar high; realistically he'll play six to eight minutes per game, at least early, and improve as the season goes along. Far from a finished product, he is another 7-footer (Stutz is the other) to add to the mix.
What could go wrong? It's almost impossible to come up with a list, but there are a couple of possibilities.
Neither Ragland nor Williams is a proven Division I point guard. Williams was forced to play some there last season and showed great tenacity and spunk. But his abilities as a floor leader are still to be determined.
Ragland is a proven point, but has only done so at the junior college level. It might take him a while to get comfortable at a higher level, much like it did Clevin Hannah, who blossomed as a senior into an All-Missouri Valley Conference player.
Kyles has as much talent as any Shocker player, but his decision-making hasn't always matched his skill.
If neither Hamilton nor Richardson can contribute much, then a crazy deep team becomes just a deep team.
But it becomes a real effort to try and find holes in this team. It's loaded. Marshall has been building for a season like this since he arrived four years ago and the Shockers' time is now.
Wichita State plays a schedule that matches its clout, starting Nov. 22 in the Maui Classic against Connecticut. The Valley will be challenging, as usual. The Shockers have to be a better road team. They made strides in that area last season; now they have to break through.
This is WSU's best team since the 2005-06 squad that went to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. The pieces are all there. Marshall has a lot to work with, including a bench he can look at without a blank stare.